On that October night in 2012, everyone who had sat through Joe Biden’s debate prep knew he was going to say “malarkey”—they just didn’t know when. Democrats were panicking after Barack Obama had stumbled through his first debate with Mitt Romney one week earlier, but here was Biden, looking like he was having a good time dismissing Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate.
“With all due respect,” Biden said, interrupting Ryan’s very first answer that night in Kentucky, “that's a bunch of malarkey.” By the end of the evening, Biden had seemingly rescued his boss. Along the way, he’d created a meme and launched a line of “malarkey” merchandise. It was a much better night for him than in 1987, when a bungled answer set off a plagiarism scandal that weeks later forced him to bow out of his first presidential run.
Biden has always been a strong debater, but he hasn’t faced anyone since Ryan seven years ago, and hasn’t debated another Democrat in more than a decade. The first Democratic showdowns, in Miami at the end of June—over two nights with 10 candidates each— will be the biggest moment in the 2020 race so far, and Biden, as the front-runner, clearly has the most to lose. Biden’s team has kept him mostly out of sight since he launched his campaign at the end of April. Staying out of the way means he has less chance of making a comment that could be twisted into a news-cycle-defining scandal. That’s the upside. The downside, beyond having to fend off snide tweets about his skimpy schedule and articles questioning whether he’s too old to keep up, is that he’s getting almost no practice taking voter questions at town halls or in open exchanges with reporters. Now if he stumbles or screws up, it’ll be a prime-time event, with the rest of the field and an internet full of pundits ready to pounce. (On Tuesday, Biden released his long-promised climate plan and was immediately attacked both for not going far enough in his proposals and, in an echo of the 1987 scandal, for failing to include citations for certain passages.)